Republican county leaders agonized behind the scenes this year over having to pick a side in a Donald Trump-dominant presidential contest as the political calendar crept closer to June 7th, ultimately allowing time to make the decision for them, and bowing to the inevitability of Trump’s candidacy as everyone else dropped out of the race.
But imagine if party leadership decided to abdicate its powers of endorsement in the midst of a real dogfight. Imagine if Trump weren’t the only GOP candidate left standing right now, and that he faced a real continuing challenge from a Ted Cruz or John Kasich, and then consider the party leadership throwing up its hands and declaring no endorsement.
It happened once in New Jersey, and it was the Democratic Party leadership that opted out of the game.
Former U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli calls the 1976 Democratic Primary the most fascinating in his memory because it was likely the only instance of party leadership finding itself so flummoxed in the face of a bitter ongoing contest that it raised the white flag sooner than issue support a candidate.
The county organizations were all strong on paper.
Essex. Hudson. Bergen. Mercer. Camden.
But even though Governor Brendan Byrne backed Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter and New Jersey found itself in the late game position of being able – along with California and Ohio – to decide the winner of the Democratic Primary, the organizations all opted out of choosing among Carter, Arizona Congressman Mo Udall and California Governor Jerry Brown and a handful of other stragglers.
“New Jersey came up with an uncommitted slate,” Torricelli recalled. “Imagine if [Democratic State Party Chairman] John Currie filed an uncommitted slate of candidates. That’s what happened in 1976. The party put up an uncommitted delegation. I suppose the idea was that they would have some bargaining room in a convention if the primary were undecided.”
As it turned out, Carter won the popular vote in New Jersey and Ohio, and in losing to Brown in California still picked up enough delegates to go over the top for the nomination.
He ultimately defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford.
But if 1984 was that year when New Jersey decided a Democratic Primary election, 1976 was when the Democratic Party decided it wanted no part of picking a winner.